If you want your PCB fabrication to be done professionally, you should hire a company that specializes in printed circuit boards. However, you should also be prepared to shoulder huge costs, especially if you need high-temperature materials. If you want to save some money and hone your skills at the same time, you can try making your own printed circuit boards at home. Do-it-yourself PCBs are actually becoming more and more popular today.
With do-it-yourself PCBs, you can create numerous projects. You can start with simple projects and gradually move on to more complex projects. If you have already worked with pre-kitted PCBs in the past, you will surely appreciate the differences between pre-printed PCBs and PCBs that were hand wired on a perf board. The process is actually pretty simple. Simply convert a schematic to a board, purchase the necessary parts, and then assemble them together.
PCB fabrication at home may seem complicated at first, especially if you are used to using pre-kitted boards. There is no need for you to be hesitant though. You just have to get a PCB layout program and gather the necessary tools for the project. You can use resist-pens and Microsoft Office’s Paint to define traces. Although you may be limited to which circuits you can use, you can still make a pretty amazing PCB.
Anyway, if you do not think that simple circuits will satisfy you, you can get a PCB layout software program for free. Layout tools, such as Eagle PCB, are excellent for PCB fabrication at home. They are commercial quality yet free of charge. They are also downloadable for both Windows and Linux operating systems. The only downsize of using this software is that you are only allowed to use one schematic and a PCB of about 2.5 inches by 4 inches. This is actually not bad if you are just doing a personal project.
Also, the software is not difficult to use. You should study the component libraries and interface. This software program is much better than Microsoft Office’s Paint and etching markers. You can purchase a paid version if you think you need more features. When it comes to etching equipment, you can buy a laser printer and a laminating machine if you plan on using the toner transfer method for your project.
Use the laser printer to print your PCB layout. Then, use the laminating machine to re-fuse the toner on a blank copper PCB. Soak the PCB until the paper dissolves and only the toner is left behind. All areas covered with copper will remain as component pads or circuit traces. You can use an etch tank in which a couple of aquarium pumps circulate Ammonium Persulfate over the PCBs and a couple of aquarium heaters maintain a specific temperature.
Depending on how fresh your solution is and how thick your PCB is, the entire process can last for ten to thirty minutes. After the etching process, you should remove the toner with a solvent. You should also tin the board using a piece of solderwick and a soldering iron. If you want to improve the appearance of your PCB as well as prevent the copper from oxidizing early, you should watch the time. Finally, you can drill the holes for the components.
PCB fabrication at home is pretty simple. You do not need to buy complex equipment either. However, your success rate may not be one hundred percent. You may need to do some trial and error or repeat the processes a few times if you are not lucky the first time. Nonetheless, DIY printed circuit board fabrication can still prove to be a worthwhile activity.